Tom Shales, Style Columnist
THE NEW SEASON TV Preview

'Help Me': A Cure for Couch Potatoes

Ted Danson, playing a psychiatrist, with Jane Kaczmarek and Tom Wilson during an awkward domestic encounter.
Ted Danson, playing a psychiatrist, with Jane Kaczmarek and Tom Wilson during an awkward domestic encounter. (By Richard Cartwright -- Abc)

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By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 26, 2006

What killed the sitcom? Could it perhaps have been . . . The Sitcom?

That's the glibly simplistic explanation, but it's hardly groundless. Situation comedies became so overwhelming in number and so formulaic in execution over the decades that the typical sitcom seemed like a revival upon arrival.

Comes now Exhibit M, N, O or P: Ted Danson starring as Dr. Bill Hoffman in "Help Me Help You," a supposedly fresh sitcom arriving on ABC tonight in a big cloud of deja vu.

One reason for that sense, albeit a fairly minor one, is that the supporting cast includes Jere Burns playing a member of a group-therapy ensemble that Hoffman runs. Burns made his first big splash in sitcomedy back in 1988 when he played, of all things, a member of a similar group-therapy ensemble, this one run by Judd Hirsch. What goes around comes around, and around, and around.

Crispy and crackling, Danson handles the role of a troubled shrink a lot better than Hirsch did. And while we're making meaningless comparisons, "Help Me" and Dr. Hoffman are several steps up from "Becker," the last Danson sitcom, wherein he played a doctor whose most bitter pill was himself, dispensed liberally.

All those similarities bring us back to "why the sitcom seems kaput." And by "the sitcom," we especially mean the sort of gang's-all-here, three-camera, "taped before a live audience" kind of sitcom that dominated prime time for most of the '70s, '80s and '90s. There are hardly any such shows among the new network series rolling out this week and next.

It's always too early to say that any TV format is dead. Even westerns might come back (on HBO, with "Deadwood," they sort of did). "Help Me," however, is not the show to do the trick for the sitcom.

The show tries to be both a comedy about Hoffman's mess of a personal life and an ensemble show about all the members of the group -- Charlie Finn as Dave, who is clumsily suicidal; Jim Rash as Jonathan, in denial about being gay; and Suzy Nakamara as Inger, who has a laundry list of Relationship Issues ("I haven't had sex since my 19th birthday"), and so on.

As for Doc Hoffman, he's going through a midlife crisis as big as his awesome black Porsche (vanity plates: "4EVRJUNG"). Having told everyone in the group, repeatedly, that they should "connect" with someone else and "make a connection" before the next session, he makes one of the klutziest connections possible, accidentally climbing into bed with his ex-wife (the imposingly hilarious Jane Kaczmarek, formerly of "Malcolm in the Middle") and the used-car salesman she is dating.

"You sold me a crappy car, and now you're diddling my wife?" That's Danson's version of "J'accuse" the next morning around the breakfast table. Yes, he's somehow still there the next morning, and so is his teenage daughter, determined to immortalize excruciating moments on her camcorder. A little later, "Help Me" becomes the season's second new sitcom to attempt variations on "Seinfeld's" famous "make-up sex" joke, with Hoffman entreating his wife to indulge in not only "make-up sex" but also "break-up sex" and "wake-up sex."

Accumulating evidence indicates that "Seinfeld" will prove to be the last great sitcom of the age of the sitcom. Or -- the last great sitcom of the second trimester of television. Maybe phrasing it as simply as possible is the best way: "the last really funny TV show." "Seinfeld's" lofty and towering status is in no way challenged by "Help Me Help You," which is also no threat to "Cheers" as Ted Danson's shining and defining career achievement.

As luck would have it, "Help Me Help You" does not face extremely stiff competition in its Tuesday night time slot, so Danson and Kaczmarek might live to spat another day, and another week, and perhaps for the entire season. Then someone can use their show as proof that sitcoms are actually alive and well after all -- even though "Help Me Help You" begins its existence half-dead and quite deadly.

Help Me Help You (30 minutes) premieres tonight at 9:30 on Channel 7.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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